January in the British music industry is all about new artists, particularly the publication of two influential tips lists: the BRITs rising star award and the BBC Radio 1 Sound Of 2024 poll.
Voted for by key industry tastemakers, the awards have a habit of becoming self-fulfilling prophecies, with previous joint winners including a pre-fame Adele, Ellie Goulding and Sam Smith.
More from Variety
This year, both prizes were taken by buzz band the Last Dinner Party, the first time an alternative band has done the double. And their U.K. label, Island Records, is not wasting any time when it comes to capitalizing on the huge interest in the band, releasing the Last Dinner Party’s hotly anticipated debut album, “Prelude to Ecstasy,” on Feb. 2.
“Bands like this don’t come along very often,” Island U.K. President Louis Bloom tells Variety. “It’s important that they are recognized when they do because they fit into what we do really well as a country. They’re in that great lineage of Kate Bush, Queen and Bowie; eccentric, quirky, British acts that can move the cultural dial. As soon as we launched, eyes were on the band and it created a discussion.”
Not all of that discussion was positive, however. Indeed, at one stage last year, the Last Dinner Party seemed to be enjoying more backlash than actual hype, dubbed “industry plants” by some online after they spotted the band had heavyweight management (Tara Richardson and Cliff Burnstein at Q Prime) and had played an early Rolling Stones support slot at BST Hyde Park.
“We laughed at it,” chuckles Bloom of the criticism. “You can’t make something like this up. If only we were that talented, to create something so wonderful!”
“I can’t reiterate this enough,” he adds. “This is their vision, they wrote all the songs, they decide how they look on stage… The whole thing is them, and we’re just there to help bring their ideas to life. I don’t think there’s room for cynicism: this is a young band doing great things and we should all celebrate that.”
Bloom insists that, in any case, the backlash soon evaporated once people saw the band play live. And TLDP has certainly gathered a passionate fanbase; this week’s London Roundhouse show sold out in a matter of minutes.
With the U.K. in something of a new music drought, however, there are few guarantees of success, especially for alternative bands, even award-winning ones. But Bloom says the label is prepared to play the long game when it comes to ensuring TLDP’s breakthrough.
“The album is a classic, so who knows where this will go?” he says. “It’s a document of this time and what it shows is that they will, ultimately, transcend being an ‘indie’ band, because their influences are wide and their creative ambition is absolutely huge. We’re in for a wild ride over their career.”
America is a particular focus for the band, with Bloom saying Q Prime’s “experience and forward-thinking” and the support of Island U.S. has been vital in setting TLDP up for Stateside success. The band starts a U.S. tour in Austin on March 21 and has already performed their single “Nothing Matters” on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.”
In the meantime, Island U.K. is on something of a roll with new music. The label also won both awards last year with R&B group FLO, whose debut album will be released later this year, and had two of the three acts on the BRITs Rising Star shortlist in both 2023 and 2024, with Nia Archives and Sekou also appearing. Bloom jokes about going back next year and aiming for “the hat-trick” of wins.
“Our strategy is based on long-term artist development,” says Bloom. “We think we’ve signed the best around in multiple genres and now this year is an important year for Island. There’s an irrepressible spirit with the team at the moment and, when that collides with something special from the artists, magic happens.”
The all-female Last Dinner Party’s awards success was echoed across this year’s BRIT Awards nominations. After last year’s controversy, when female artists were shut out of the artist of the year category, 55% of this year’s nominations featured women, including six of the newly expanded, 10-strong artist of the year shortlist.
There was similar progress made on the charts, with women featuring on a record seven out of the Top 10 singles of 2023, according to labels trade body the BPI.
“We were all disappointed with the results from BRITs 2023,” new BPI CEO Jo Twist tells Variety. “So it’s really positive to see diversity and gender being recognized as something that’s important to showcase. But there’s never room for complacency and we need to make sure we’re continuing the work to support diverse artists. We can’t think, ‘That’s job done’ – it’s never job done.”
Twist hails a “wonderful” set of year-end figures for the industry, which show overall music consumption surged by 10% in 2023 to 182.2 million album-equivalent sales – notably higher than 2022’s 4.3% growth.
But it wasn’t all good news. Not a single debut 2023 album appeared in the Top 40 best-sellers, while 2023 releases featuring new material were also absent from the year’s Top 10 biggest albums – unless you count Taylor Swift’s “1989 (Taylor’s Version)” – with the list dominated by catalog releases.
However, Twist insists there is no new U.K. music crisis.
“It’s right to always be alive to this issue,” she says. “It’s going to be a big focus for us going forward, as well as supporting creative education in that talent ecosystem story. These things are all connected; we need to be able to remove barriers to investment and for artists getting to international markets, and we need to work with government to bring insight into where the opportunities are.”
“We do have challenges,” she adds. “But we are still world-leading. We have 1% of the global population but around 10% of global music consumption, which is phenomenal.”
One artist that did break through, Raye, was acknowledged with a record-breaking seven BRITs nominations (although there are many more categories and notably longer shortlists than when the previous mark of six was set).
Raye has found success as an independent artist (supported by Human Re Sources and The Orchard) after parting ways with her major label, Polydor, following a row about the label’s apparent reluctance to release her debut album. And Twist says there are lessons for the industry to learn from her success.
“Sometimes this can be a long game,” Twist says. “But when you invest in new talent you can see the results. Raye should be congratulated for that record-breaking set of nominations; it’s incredibly important that we continue to support that kind of success.”
This year’s BRIT Awards take place at The O2 in London on March 2.
Alternative rockers The Snuts are also hoping to “do a Raye,” after exiting their major label deal in favor of releasing independently.
While signed to Parlophone, the Scottish band scored a No.1 album with 2021’s “W.L.” (defeating Demi Lovato in a close-run chart battle) and hit No.3 with the 2022 follow-up, “Burn the Empire.”
But they found themselves caught in the fallout from the label’s 2023 revamp, during which many key staff – including Co-Presidents Nick Burgess and Mark Mitchell and General Manager Jack Melhuish – left the company.
“The internal politics at the label were definitely having an effect,” Snuts co-manager Adam Harris of Touchdown Management tells Variety. “Then we literally got a call one morning to say, ‘Everyone’s gone…’”
Harris and co-manager Callum Read say they were offered a new deal by Warner Music Group, but the band chose to strike out on its own so as not to lose any more momentum. It will now release a rabble-rousing third album, “Millennials” on Feb. 23 on its own Happy Artist label, via a JV with The Orchard. The label is named after the time Snuts frontman Jack Cochrane told someone at the record company he was feeling positive and the Parlophone exec replied, “That’s not good – no one likes a happy artist, things go wrong when that happens.”
The new set-up means the management duo is getting used to also overseeing the label (“We were wearing multiple hats before, now it’s like a fucking hat shop!” quips Harris), but they are confident the band can scale the same heights it did during its major label days.
“We’re pitching this album for a No. 1 and we won’t stop until we’re there,” says Harris. “The Orchard have proven with Raye what they can achieve, they’re punching harder than a lot of frontline labels. We’ve got a point to prove and I’m really confident we’re going to prove it.”
The Snuts have forged a reputation as an excellent live band and will kick off a U.S. tour in Washington D.C. on March 4, with the execs saying the band will make multiple visits to America during the campaign.
“The US is the hardest place to break but the international potential with this band is as big as we want to push it,” says Harris.
“There’s nothing better than knowing that, if an opportunity comes up for your artist to be on stage in front of people, they’re going to absolutely smash it,” says Read. “Their live performance is just impeccable.”
The Snuts are particularly popular in their native Scotland, but the management duo is determined the band won’t be dismissed as simply a local success story, as a potential guitar band revival gathers pace.
“We want to sustain their career to a really impressive level across the world,” says Read. “Regionally, you’re getting guitar acts and bands popping up. They’ve got these massive fanbases but that’s not reflected in what the industry’s representing. There seems to be a mismatch between what the public want to go and see live, and what the gatekeepers deem culturally relevant.”
Touchdown also looks after highly rated singer-songwriter Grace Barr, currently of interest to numerous major labels, and Harris and Read are eyeing up expansion plans for Touchdown to cope with the increased demand for their artists.
“We’re not doing this to be second best,” declares Harris. “We’re here to reach for the top.”
Breaking new alternative artists is also top of mind for BBC Radio 6 Music’s leading tastemakers, Steve Lamacq and Huw Stephens.
Veteran new music champion Lamacq stepped down from his daily drivetime show last year but has just started his new “Teatime Session” show on Monday afternoons, with Stephens taking over the 4-7 p.m. slot Tuesday to Friday.
Lamacq’s decision came as a shock to many in the industry, which has come to rely on his unstinting support for new artists. But the DJ tells Variety the time has come to step back.
“It was a hard decision. Because I still love finding new artists and records and sharing them with an audience,” he says. “But it had come to the stage where it was all getting a bit too much. The music industry’s putting out so many records, it was hard juggling the responsibility of sifting through all that, with being a Dad and coming to terms with the fact that there were one or two other things I really wanted to do.”
Lamacq is now also chairman of live music trade body LIVE and a podcaster, but he stresses he’s “still as committed to the cause as I was.” He says 6 Music has given him the freedom to choose the records on his new show, meaning he’s packing in almost as much brand new music in one day as he used to across a week.
Lamacq has previously been instrumental in the rise of bands from Oasis to Idles, and he says his new show will still be able to play a crucial role in breaking new acts.
“Although we’re only on once a week, the heft of the program means there’s a ripple effect from our show,” he says. “If you have trust with an audience, they’re going to listen to that show and then follow up what we’ve played themselves.”
“It’s more difficult to break bands than it was in the ‘90s,” he adds. “But if you’re really good, there are still pathways through, and 6 Music is one of the important ones.”
Stephens, who himself has a long track record of supporting new music at BBC Radio 1 and on regional radio in Wales (he broadcasts his new show from the Welsh capital, Cardiff), agrees.
“I know that one radio play isn’t going to make an artist, but it’s part of a huge jigsaw,” he says. “You’ve got to sort out the live and streaming elements, but radio is still really important. 6 Music can open doors because you need that spotlight shone on artists.”
Lamacq describes Stephens as “the ideal choice” to take over the slot, which is keenly watched by the industry, saying both presenters are “fuelled by a mad enthusiasm for what comes next musically.”
Meanwhile, Stephens praises “living legend” Lamacq as a key influence on his career (“If it wasn’t for Steve playing all the brilliant music he’s brought us over the years, my music taste would be very different to now”), but says his new show will forge its own identity.
“The show is going to be different because it has to be,” he says. “I’m a different presenter and a different person.”
6 Music’s ratings soared in the last RAJAR report, with listeners up 11.7% year-on-year to 2.753 million. And both presenters say that, despite increased competition from streaming services, the station continues to play a key role in the U.K. music industry.
“Our audience at 6 Music are the sort of people who understand that no one really knows what they’re looking for, musically,” says Lamacq. “In 2016, I wasn’t walking around thinking, ‘I’m looking for a band influenced by punk, made by five fellas in their 30s from Bristol,’ but the moment I saw Idles, it made absolute sense. And that’s what we’re trying to do for people, bring them the music they didn’t know they were looking for. Otherwise, we’d just listen to the same music until we die!”
Early reactions to the new shows have been positive, and while Stephens quips that he’s taking things “one month at a time,” Lamacq – who presented his previous show for 18 years – is hoping for another lengthy stint in his current slot.
“I’m going to be very hard to get out of that chair now,” he laughs. “I’m going to stay there until they turf me out!”
Best of Variety